Animal production

Sustainable cattle feeding Feeding cattle in the context of methane emissions

Each herd has its own specific energy and protein requirements during the various stages of growth, development and lactation. However, the basic principles of nutrition are common to all. Good functioning of the digestive tract of ruminants is determined by the content of digestible fibre (NDF – neutral detergent Fibre) in the ration, the proportion of which should be between 25% and 30%. Particularly important is the content of effective fibre of sufficient brittleness and length. In milking cows, its content should be between 21%-23% in the ration. Proper denseness definitely minimises the risk of acidosis, as it affects the frequency of rumination and the secretion of saliva, which is a natural pH buffer of the rumen contents. Taking care of these parameters is extremely important, as a properly functioning rumen has a huge impact on reducing methane emissions into the environment. An adult cow emits 250 to 400 L of methane per day, 90% of which is excreted through the gas rebound reflex. Taking care of the highest possible digestibility of the ration and the microbial environment of the rumen can therefore significantly reduce methane emissions and thus improve the profitability of production on the farm by reducing feed energy losses in the process of methanogenesis. An additional gain is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from the production process. General principles of cattle feeding

The basis of a good cattle ration is roughage. They should be the main component to maintain the correct structure of the ration. Good quality hay, grass silage, and legumes are also a source of valuable protein and, above all, essential amino acids. The roughage that dairy producers cannot imagine feeding without is corn silage. It is a very good source of energy and fibre. Corn silage is one of the cheapest roughages for dairy cows and beef cattle. However, its quality is closely related to the timing of harvesting and ensiling technology. Corn is a material that ensiles very well provided all the requirements of harvesting and ensiling technology are met. In this matter, it is worth using as an assisting agent designed for the preservation of corn, i.e. an inoculant. The use of a preservative of the bacterial type, which contains lactic acid bacteria in its composition, will cause the fermentation processes to be directed to the desired lactic acid fermentation. In addition, it is a good idea to look for products that also contain enzymes that release a larger pool of sugars needed in the ensiling process. The addition of propionic acid bacteria will further stabilize the silage even after the heap is opened. The inoculant will also inhibit the growth of mould and yeast, which reduce the quality of silage, and prevent secondary fermentation after the heap is opened. Well-prepared corn silage will have a positive impact on the production performance of the herd – both dairy and fattening.

The quality of the feed base is one side of the coin. Managing herd nutrition in such a way as to take advantage of the productive capacity of the animals based on their genotype is also a prerequisite for success. This should be done with special attention to animal health, without which there is no profitable production. The key here is the feed rationing, because feed quality and planned quantity is one thing, but on the other hand there is the precision of feeding, without which even the best plan written on paper will not materialise. Accuracy in ingredient measuring is ensured by the mixer feeder, and in addition, mixing concentrate feed with roughage prevents the occurrence of subacute ruminal acidosis (SARA), which is the enemy of high performance. Two feeding systems – TMR (Total Mixed Ration) and feed stations – ensure safety in the use of large amounts of concentrate feed. Implementing both of these systems requires a financial outlay, but investing in the development of the farm through the introduction of modern feeding systems, with good herd management, is profitable, as a well-executed investment will pay off in the form of additional milk and animal health.

Quality requirements of feedstuffs and cattle feeding based on the requirements of QMP Standards
All cattle must be given a dietary ration in accordance with their nutritional needs that is sufficient to maintain full health and is appropriate for their physical condition and production status. A participant in the System should have a documented plan for feeding animals divided into technology groups.

Pasture and green feedstuff management
Grazing livestock on pastures and agricultural fields is the most natural and consistent with nature’s cycle form of using young green mass. Well-managed grazing minimises the physical, biological or chemical risks related to the contamination of animal food and the environment. If necessary, appropriate rest periods should be observed before allowing livestock to graze on the pasture, crops or their residues, as well as intervals between grazing cycles (to minimise biological contamination from manure and to ensure that appropriate intervals are observed for the application of agricultural chemical preparations). The presence of noxious weeds, which can be poisonous to cattle, should be controlled. Only permitted crop protection products used properly may be applied on pastures and forage crops. Records of the treatments performed with crop protection products should always be kept. The cattle stocking rate on the pasture should be between 0.3-1.4 LU/hectare.

Feed suppliers
All entities in the feedstuff market must be supervised by the District Veterinarian and must hold an identification number assigned by the District Veterinarian by decision. When issuing an administrative decision on the approval of a facility, the District Veterinarian shall assign it an identification number, as referred to in Article 19(2) of Regulation No. 183/2005. Upon request, the District Veterinarian assigns an identification number to an entity operating in the feedstuff market. Business entities operating in the feedstuff market and farmers procure and use feed only from facilities registered and/or approved in accordance with Regulation (EC) No. 183/2005. The purchase of feed materials from feedstuff market entities must be made from a trader/producer participating in the QMP Feed System. The list of certified feed suppliers is published at The above requirement does not apply to direct purchases of small quantities of primary feed at the local level made from a local primary feed producer farmer.

Self-produced feed and purchased feed
The basis of nutrition is feed produced on the farm. The use of purchased feed (including feed additives) is allowed. Purchased farm feed should always be recorded. Documents for other purchased feed and ingredients should include at least such details as product name, manufacturer, batch number, and expiration date. Records should be kept for at least two years. Animal protein cannot be used in cattle nutrition. This prohibition does not apply to the feeding of cattle with:

  • milk, milk-based products, milk-derived products, colostrum and colostrum products,
  • eggs and egg products,
  • collagen and gelatin from non-ruminant animals,
  • hydrolysed proteins derived from non-ruminant animal parts or ruminant hides and skins,
  • feed mixes containing the products listed in four bullet points above; By-products of the agro-food industry can be used in nutrition. Products must be accompanied by a supplier’s declaration. Declarations with proof of delivery must be kept for two years.

Herd nutrition planning

At the beginning, it is needed to calculate the roughage requirements that the farm will provide for the entire herd, both from field crops (corn, alfalfa, grasses and cereal mixes, straw) and permanent hayland (silage and hay). Roughage provides both adequate energy and protein feed for ruminants, as well as adequate structure and fibre content in the ration. Well-harvested, properly preserved roughage with correct parameters guarantees production stability. It is extremely important that silage is properly preserved, which is helped by the use of high-quality ensiling agents (inoculants) that guarantee that the fermentation processes in silage will go in the right direction. It is worth noting what bacterial strains and enzymes are in the used ensiling agent and whether they will also affect the maintenance of its quality when the silage from the heap is picked in 9-10 months. The right choice significantly reduces losses and the need to dispose of highly acidic waste. If our herd is kept in a grazing system it is essential to take care of the quality of the grass and the size of the grazing areas. In this regard, we take into account the appropriate selection of grass mixes and fertilisation using organic fertilisers and supplementing them with mineral fertilisers in granular or liquid form.

The basis for the proper organisation of nutrition, but also the proper growth and development of animals, is the division of animals into groups according to age and production stage, and the preparation for them of a specific, complete ration completely mixed, containing both roughage, concentrates, vitamin, mineral and other additives, which we call TMR for short. A well-prepared TMR provides an optimal composition to ensure that the right amount of energy and protein is provided, that the animals are not able to sort through the feed and that the fibre content and structure are correct – parameters that are extremely important for the proper functioning of ruminants.

The division of the herd into groups depends on the number of animals kept. Some say that division at herd sizes of less than 50 head is not justified, but it is worthwhile even at smaller herd sizes to divide the herd into groups, thus ensuring optimal coverage of the physiological needs of the animals in each group and optimising costs. The most reasonable minimum division of milking cows during the production period is 3 groups: dried out, starting lactation and in full lactation. In a perfect scenario, we should carve out a group of heifers – they have special needs because they are already producing, but still growing. It is also necessary to divide the young cattle into groups according to the age of the animals so that the hierarchy in the group does not cause a problem with access to feed and water. Detailed principles of sustainable cattle feeding by age group and production direction

Calf nutrition
We usually keep the youngest dairy cattle calves individually to have control over each head and to ensure of adequate milk supply. Here, it is necessary to keep in mind the physiology of the structure of the digestive tract of calves – the appropriate height of placement of the teat (about 60 cm from the ground) significantly affects the proper development of the stomach chambers and the health of young animals. Regardless of whether we feed calves whole milk or milk replacer, they must be fed at the right temperature (about 40°C) and quantity (up to 3 L/feed). It is assumed that, on average, a calf drinks 10-12% of its body weight, i.e. initially about 5 -7 L/day, divided into a sufficient number of drinks to not exceed the amount per feeding. However, we should observe the calves and react by increasing or decreasing the dose if necessary. In the case of beef cattle calves, this problem does not exist, as calves drink milk from their mothers. Just make sure that the calf is doing well and that the mother lets it suckle calmly to be sure of proper colostrum intake

Young animals need to be accustomed to solid feed very early. From as early as day 5-7, they should have access to concentrated feed, usually in the form of ready-made pellets or so-called muesli. Of great importance for the proper development of stomachs is the feeding of whole corn and oats, which stimulate the proper development of the rumen. In doing so, it is necessary to have constant access to clean water. Lack of access to water, despite the initial low interest in it, reduces the intake of concentrated feed and limits the development of stomachs and the rate of growth. Then, very good quality hay should be introduced as a basic roughage, which has a very positive effect on rumen muscle development.

It is extremely important to maintain calves’ welfare, i.e. take care of optimal conditions. No drafts and dry bedding allow for avoiding diseases and proper development of future cows.

Calves of meat breeds stay with their mothers until 6-7 months and gradually consume roughage and concentrate. Dairy breeds do not have this opportunity and use milk until 7-10 weeks of age. After that, they switch completely to roughage and concentrate feed. So it is very important to prepare them properly for this stage.

Young cattle nutrition
Breeding youngsters also need to be provided with the right conditions for optimal growth and development. They should be kept in buildings that allow free movement, in which the right conditions are provided: adequate cubic capacity to guarantee sufficient air exchange, adequate light, dry bedding, free access to the feed table and drinking troughs with clean water. Young breeding cattle from the age of 4 months should have their rations properly arranged in terms of energy and protein. During the period up to 9 months of age, the glandular tissue of the udder is formed in heifers. Poorly balanced nutrition – for example, feeding leftovers from the feed table of high-milking cows – can cause excess energy and hypertrophy of the glandular tissue with fat, which will definitely reduce the milk production capacity of the future cow. Fatness can also cause difficulties at parturition. Deficiencies in feed intake can result in lower future productivity, as well as difficulties with calving, poorly visible oestrus and even weaker bone. Developmental losses during this period can no longer be repaired later. It is therefore necessary to ensure that growing animals are properly supplied with minerals and vitamins. Proper development is a moderate gain of 700 to 800 g/day. Protein and energy requirements depending on body weight and growth are contained in the table below. It is generally assumed that during this period the proportion of corn silage in the ration should not exceed 30-40% of dry matter in the total ration.

Heifer metabolic energy (ME) and total protein (TP) requirements.

The feeding of heifers should be arranged to ensure the best possible development of the mammary gland of the udder, which in the period needed to gain the weight of 200-250 kg requires the addition of about 2.5 kg of concentrate feed per day. Then we take care of the best possible preparation of animals for the first calving, which can be achieved by reducing the supply of protein to a level of about 14% in the ration, which is usually associated with a reduction in the daily ration of concentrates to about 1-1.5 kg. It is normal for Holstein-Friesian heifers to reach a body weight of about 400 kg, for calving at 15 -16 months of age. Arranging feed rations is based on knowledge of the parameters of the feed used in cattle nutrition. In the absence of laboratory tests, one can rely on tabular data (below). In addition to the balance of basic ingredients, it is essential to adjust the nutritional minerals, and in the period before insemination, particular attention should be paid to selenium, vitamin E and beta-carotene.

The nutritional value of the feedstuffs most commonly used in the feeding of heifers.


If the animals, for various reasons, do not reach the required weight at 15-16 months, it is much more reasonable to delay the insemination period than to mate them at that time and try to make up for the weight through very intensive and energetic feeding during gestation. This can cause great difficulty during parturition and reduced productivity in the first lactation. Delaying the age of first insemination by up to 4-5 months will not adversely affect the subsequent performance of the cow, but will raise the unit cost of maintaining 1 head. Such situations can occur when keeping young cattle exclusively on pasture feeding. It promotes very good development of the heifer’s body due to movement, air, and sunlight, but may be associated with insufficient energy and protein nutrition due to low quantity or quality of grass. In such cases, it is essential to feed the heifers silage and concentrate feed.

For growing young cattle (dairy and beef), proper mineral nutrition and digestibility supplements are necessary. There are interesting solutions in the market to supplement the mineral nutrition given per average head in the TMR. There are always heads in the herd that have higher needs. They will require higher supplementation, which can be achieved with special blocks or buckets of mineral-vitamin mixes that we put out for intake ad libitum. Such a solution is also a very good indicator of the correct mineral balance of the feed ration. Rapid consumption of supplements indicates that there are deficiencies, and lack of interest indicates that mineral nutrition is above the required level. There are also products available in the market that have other functions besides mineral supplementation, such as improving roughage digestibility or acting as a buffer.

In-calf heifers should be guaranteed nutrition at all times to ensure embryonic development and weight gain. The heifer after calving should weigh about 550 – 570 kg. Such weight guarantees good performance in the first and subsequent lactations. At the first period of gestation, feeding should be based on reduced energy feed, and the proportion of corn silage should not exceed 25% of the dry weight of the total ration. The closer we get to parturition (about 3 weeks before), the more we increase the amount of energy and protein in the ration, reaching a similar amount for lactating cows before calving. You should certainly make sure that all the components that are used for cows during lactation are gradually introduced.

Feeding dairy cows
The nutrition of lactating cows is a very broad topic. The basis of feeding dairy cows should be to achieve the best possible reproductive and health results with optimal milk production. The best solution is to find a good nutritional advisor to help analyse the feedstuffs available on the farm, balance it properly and adjust the rations to the desired results. Attention to the best quality of roughage prepared on the farm makes it possible to obtain significant coverage of animal requirements from it alone. Sustainable production is not the pursuit of productivity records, but the optimal profitability of the entire production process. A properly composed ration should provide cows in each production group with the right amount of energy and protein according to the expected milk production. The ration usually includes corn silage in a large proportion, so its quality is extremely important. This is followed by alfalfa and grass silages. To supplement energy intake, ensiled corn grain is increasingly appearing on farms. The basis of concentrated feed is cereal grains, preferably in crushed form, but nutrition cannot go on without purchased protein feed, such as soybean or rapeseed meal, or rapeseed cake. Highly productive animals also need additives to stabilise the pH of the rumen contents and improve the functioning of its microflora.

Cows that start lactation must be properly prepared for this time, so in the last period of drying off – 3 weeks before calving – it is necessary to accustom them to the appropriate level of concentrate feed in the ration. The rumen needs to “switch” its microflora to one that will efficiently process large amounts of protein and energy. Dry matter intake must increase significantly to meet the body’s nutritional and production requirements. This change always involves the activation of energy reserves from body fat, so there is a risk of developing metabolic diseases – ketosis or acidosis. Taking the right approach and ensuring an early smooth transition to this period can significantly improve herd health, which will translate into herd fertility parameters and stable productivity.

It is necessary to monitor the performance of each group of cows and heads in the group on an ongoing basis in order to optimise nutrition accordingly. The availability of adequate amounts of good-quality straw and hay is essential. They will be needed to achieve the appropriate structure and composition of the TMR.